Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Research is a money pit

Do you ever get the sense that research money often goes wasted? Even if you ignore all the research dead-ends and the discoveries which have limited implications, and just concentrate on what you can get for your tax money. How often does an expensive machine get used for only one experiment, how often do we throw out stuff that still works. And not to mention the price gouging that suppliers are guilty of. I don't understand how a ice pack for a western apparatus can be 10 times more expensive than a regular one, or why a research fridge is four times the price of a regular fridge. It's certainly not for the reliability, from what I've seen of our fridges. Some of the kits you can get now are ridiculous, especially considering the hourly wage of the person using it. It begs the question: should we hold the researchers accountable for the money they use? Between two researchers who produce the same work, should we choose the one who will do it for cheaper, or do we risk stifling innovation? Just take this example of a researcher who used his grant money for chrome wheels and big screen TVs. It sounds like he got off easy:

"Another $123,703.20 in expenditures appeared to be "inconsistent" with his research grant proposals, the documents say. But university investigators gave him the benefit of the doubt saying the nine computer monitors and other items "might have been related" to his research from a "general scientific perspective."

The university then made an arrangement with the researcher that in the "event of timely repayment" of $24,767.33, it would not ask for the rest of the money back.

The university returned $21,485.67 to NSERC. The documents indicate the other $3,000 refunded by the scientist was sent back to other agencies that had also financed his research."


12 comments:

Bayman said...

On the story about the alleged scientist who allegedly ripped off NSERC. First, this was fraud, not money being wasted on research. Whether research is worth the money is a different issue than the abuse of the system issue. This money wasn't being spent on research so this case tells one nothing about the value of research.

Second, I find this story hard to believe. Not the fact that some jackass tried to exploit the grant system. But the fact that the scientist in question clearly knew s/he was ripping off the system and did so transparently. Paperwork was allegedly submitted to the university and all the expenses, like the chrome wheels and the home entertainment system, and their costs, were declared therein (ie "Stereo System........$1,700"). Presumably, receipts were also submitted, as is mandatory practice when claiming expenses on a grant. Then, according to the allegations, the university reviewed the expense claims, decided they were valid, and reimbursed the scientist in question for these personal expenses through the grant.

This story is ridiculously hard to believe. Especially given that no one can say who claimed the expenses or which university was involved. So "some scientist" at "some Canadian university" misused "some NSERC grant" through a highly unlikely series of events...???

What a great half-assed and likely fictitious story to print in newspapers to convince the public that scientists are a bunch of idiotic scam-artists who want nothing more than to spend their grant money on pimping out their sweet rides and home entertainment systems. What a load of shit.

Anonymous Coward said...

the article makes it sound as though he fudged the receipts. Although the parallel I'm trying to make is that we don't watch very closely what is being bought for research. Just because one can use 9 computer monitor panel array for research it doesn't mean it's necessary. Is a $300000 cyphergen machine that was used once, with no published results not also a ripoff of tax-payers money, albeit not as blatant as chrome rims.

Bayman said...

the article makes it sound as though he fudged the receipts.

Yeah you would think someone with a PhD would have the foresight to do that if s/he was going to cheat the system. But the Citizen article in yesterday's paper showed a document that clearly listed each purchase and the cost.

the parallel I'm trying to make is that we don't watch very closely what is being bought for research.

On the contrary, IF this story is true, it proves that research expenses are being watched very closely by the granting agencies and the people who misuse the money are being caught.

Is a $300000 cyphergen machine that was used once, with no published results not also a ripoff of tax-payers money

This is a totally different issue. Yes, research involves taking risks, sometimes you hit a dead end. Mistakes do cost money, but that's how research moves forward.

What percentage of your experiments and data collected would you say end up being directly cited in a paper? Probably not too many. Does that mean they're not worth doing?

Mr. Gunn said...

Gotta say I'm with the bayman on this one. Yeah, we get ripped off by Invitrogen on a daily basis, but the high prices are due to the lack of an efficient market in life science supplies(Fisher isn't quite on the same level as Amazon), not because researchers are blowing money on crap they don't need.

I've blown through ridiculous amounts of supplies on projects that never ended up going anywhere, but isn't it unrealistically optimistic to think that i would have found the right answer the first place I looked, saving me the "waste" of all those blind alleys? Now, if I were to spend all my grant money on kits and pre-made PBS and ELISA wash buffer and so on, but wasn't able to leverage the time savings into increased productivity, then yeah, that would be wasteful, but thankfully we have purchasing departments and grant reviews that get that kind of nonsense from getting out of hand.

Anonymous said...

War is a money pit.
Bureaucracy is a money pit.
The 'Money Pit' is a money pit.
There are worse pits to throw money into.

Anonymous Coward said...

I totally agree Bayman, I just wanted to get reactions. I doubt any researcher in his right mind would blow grant money on personal stuff, which makes me think this guy was having some sort of mental breakdown. But I often wonder about the cost of things. If we had an unlimited budget, we could go on as many blind alleys as we want. But considering it's a zero-sum game and that there are human beings out there with no food and water I don't know how to justify a lot of the science we do. Anonymous is right, war is a bigger money pit, but is that a justification? Can we justify building a $100B space station because we might develop some useful technology in the process? To make a parallel: if the government is obligated to review bids of contractors to get the most out of their buck in construction projects, is that also the role of peer-review grant committees? Science is a gamble, and I wonder how good peer review is at predicting success, and maximizing what little money we have. Are there some studies on this topic?

kamel said...

But considering it's a zero-sum game and that there are human beings out there with no food and water I don't know how to justify a lot of the science we do.

Research is a zero-sum game? Research is the opposite of a zero-sum game. Research dollars are turned into net gains (or losses) and the idea is that these net gains are good for everybody. One dollar taken taken out of the purse of GlobalFoodAid and put into FeedTheWorldResearchInstitute isn't a simple one dollar loss for GFA and one dollar gain for FWRI since that dollar (ideally) will turn into better crops/farming techniques/etc. It's only a zero sum game if the researchers are committing fraud constantly and that situation wouldn't last long.

Mr. Gunn said...

It's funny you bring this up, because I've been wondering about this lately too. Our lab has a very large amount of funding, and there's almost never been an occasion where I haven't been able to do something because the money wasn't there. I do take responsibility for searching for the cheapest appropriate products and try to minimize waste as well as I can, and our purchasing department is fairly aggressive about working out deals and arranging discounts with suppliers. At the NIH, they have a complicated purchasing process (for at least some things) that automatically gets quotes for things, so it saves money, but it does take longer to get the order placed and received, which wastes time.

I can see a bidding process saving labs money when the contract out work, but I don't think a bidding process would work for doling out grants, because there's simply no way of determining (except over decades) if you're getting value for your money when you're spending it on basic research. Doing basic research just isn't like building a bridge. The more applied clinical research is probably a little easier to value, though.

There's obviously a tremendous value to just giving a smart group some money and letting them run with it, as all the "innovation challenge" prizes show.

Anonymous Coward said...

Kamel: Funding is a zero-sum game. There is a finite amount of money and a very large number of ideas. Ideas are being left out because others get funded. How do we find those that have the highest ROI?

Mr. Gunn: You're right on the money. I think using public money for research comes with a certain responsibility of using it efficiently and for the benefit of the public.

Anonymous Coward said...

I guess I've been thinking about it because of charities that raise funds for research. They are happy when they raise a couple of tens of thousands of dollars. I don't have the heart to tell these people that it probably wont change anything for their cause, maybe enough to replace a PCR machine. Research seems more expensive than it should be.

kamel said...

You should check out the prices for those black rubber ice buckets...

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